Open 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday; noon to 11 p.m. Saturday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. AE, DC, MC, V. Reservations recommended, particularly on weekends. Main courses at lunch $2.75 to $4.95, at dinner pastas $4.50 to $5.75, entrees $6.50 to $8.50. Full dinner, with tax, tip and the house wine about $16 per person.
There are two ways to eat at Mike's. You can order from the menu, like most of the others who crown into this Italian roadhouse on weekend nights, which will get you a fair-to-middling Italian dinner. Or you can take advantage of the little note on the menu that says the owners "will prepare special Italian dishes at your request." The result will probably be a slightly better fair-to-middling Italian dinner. And if you're lucky enough to get a waiter who's both knowledgeable and helpful, your chances of eating well are improved still further.
In a word, Mike's is not a first-rate Italian restaurant, but it's noticeably better than all those depressing tomato-sauce-and-pasta-mush places that help keep the antacid manufacturers in business. Besides, the big portions and reasonable prices will help increase your tolerance for less-than-inspired food -- like $5 or so for pasta dishes, $7 for chicken and $8 for veal, all with salad and vegetable.
This is one of the most oddly lit restaurants you're likely to encounter. The dining room is ringed with blue-tinted flourescent tubes, bathing everything in an eerie glow that flatters neither the food nor the customers' complexions. (People sitting at the banquettes directly under the light fixtures look especially like Charles Addams characters. If you want to appear your best on a first date, you might try for a table nearer the center of the room.) Next time the flourescent tubes need replacing, Mike's might do better to emulate the supermarket meat department, where rose-tinted light bulbs are often used to improve appearances.
For appetizers at Mike's, baked shrimp (part of a hot antipasto), big, sweet, tender and garlicky, are excellent, an accurate preview of the generally high quality of the shrimp entrees. Another good choice is mushroom stuffed with minced crabmeat. Clams casino, on the other hand, were rubbery on two consecutive visits.
Minestrone is reasonably good, but the vegetables could be a little firmer. Also mushy are the onions in the onion soup, but the mozzarella topping isn't over-applied, and the down-home broth, with its old fashioned layer of honest chicken fat, may well be the magical kind that cures the flu. Vichysoisse seems out of place on an Italian menu, but it's a good, rich rendition, with a maximum of cream and minimum of potato. Its two drawbacks are timid flavoring and dried parsley that seems to have been added at the last minute.
To us, one of the nicest moments in an Italian restaurant is when the fresh, thick-crusted, hearth-baked, authentic Italian bread arrives; eaten with a good soup or antipasto, the bread somehow reassures. "They care," it seems to say. (Those places that still serve genuine Italian bread must care, given its high price and poor storage qualities.) At Mike's, unfortunately, the message we got from the nondescript Kaiser rolls (nicely warmed as they were) was, "They're cutting corners." Incidentally, a four-year-old newspaper article on the wall describes bread prepared for Mike's by a Italian baker, so the supermarket-style rolls may be a recent development.
If Mike's makes the best of the rolls with careful warming, it also makes the best of a plain iceberg lettuce salad by making a fine, simple, oil-vinegar-herb dressing with fresh garlic and cracked pepper. The same holds for the vegetables that come with the entrees: they're on the stove too long, but they're saved by good, peppery sauces.
Considering that Mike's makes its own pastas, we were surprised at our first spaghetti encounter here. We asked the waittress whether our spaghetti entree could be cooked al dente. "No, the spaghetti is cooked in advance, but it's good," was the reply. It wasn't good. Home-made or not, the mush we were served would have been good only to someone without teeth. Too bad, because the carbonara sauce, rich with good, sweet, browned onions and lots of bacon, was excellent. On our third visit we tried the same request again, this time with a different waiter. Not only did he bring excellent, chewy spaghetti, but he divided it on two plates for sharing as an appetizer. Moral: If you're unlucky enough to draw a waiter who doesn't know or care about good pasta, find the manager (who does care) and explain what you want.
Still in the pasta department, stuffed manicotti is mediocre -- the ricotta filling is admirably fluffy and un-wet, but the pasta is long overcooked and the tomato sauce is unremarkable.Tomato sauces in general at Mike's lack the bright, sweet fruitiness that are hallmarks of the best ones.
The menu notes that veal, cut on the premises, is a house specialty, and it lists 15 veal dishes. The veal, tender, moist and fine-textured, lives up to its billing, and the portions are generous and reasonably priced. The sauces, though, don't necessarily live up to the meat. Veal marsala gave us a good opportunity to test the offer on the menu of the special Italian dishes on request. On our first visit we ordered it directly from the menu. The marsala sauce, over-thick and devoid of any wine flavor, was totally without character. The second time, we called in advance and asked for a special veal dish with marsala sauce. The veal, in a good egg batter, was dressed up with provolone, ham and avocado slices (a nice touch), and the excellent sauce, heady with marsala, seemed to bear no relation to the dull gravy we'd been served earlier.
Chicken at Mike's is a poor cousin to the veal. Pollo alla bolognese is sliced boneless chicken with ham, buried under such a massive shroud of salty mozzarella that the only discernible flavor is cheese.
Like the veal, shrimp is of high quality and well prepared, but, again, the sauce is unpredictable. Order in advance or stick with a very simple sauce from the menu -- a good choice is shrimp with butter and garlic, which is served with artichoke hearts.
Calamari fans are well treated at Mike's. The squid is sweet, delicate and without a trace of rubberiness. Calamari marinara, though, was flawed by a salty and excessively oily sauce.
Two desserts are worth mentioning, a good cannoli, with a crisp wrapper and a not-too-sweet ricotta filling containing cinnamon and chocolate bits, and a feathery zabaglione laced generously with marsala wine.